The Rationale for Attrition Research
Education policymakers can benefit from more accurate, complete, and detailed information on the extent, causes, and consequences of attrition. As noted in a National Research Council report, attrition rates, along with statistics on degrees conferred and postgraduate plans, are "vital to educators and policymakers" as well as being useful to prospective students in making decisions about graduate studies.
Education policymakers have an immediate interest in reducing the economic costs of attrition to students and their institutions. They can also use attrition research findings for more informed policymaking on a wide range of issues. These include allocation of financial resources to graduate students, increasing participation and success rates of underrepresented groups, preserving the university's role as a resource for new knowledge, innovation and highly trained workers, and meeting increased demands for accountability in performance of individual universities, programs and departments.
For students, accurate information on completion rates can help them make decisions that avoid both economic and psychological impacts that accompany failure to complete degree programs.
Financial aid is generally believed to play an important role in graduate student persistence. A key policy question that arises in addressing attrition is whether student decisions to complete the degree are related to the timing, amount, and type of aid they receive. Unfortunately, such detail on financial resource allocation is extremely difficult to collect for a variety of reasons. Among them are the limitations of university information systems, the multiplicity of sources from which students receive aid (from both within and outside the institution), and inaccurate or incomplete self-reporting by students.
In order to enhance the participation and success rates of minorities, women, and other underrepresented groups in doctoral education, more data are needed on the context of their graduate school experience. Such data have been obtained from surveys, interviews and focus groups as well as site visits. The questions asked usually relate to such contextual elements as the quality and quantity of faculty mentoring and opportunities to participate in the life of the department.
The Role of Universities in the Knowledge Society
As the 21st Century approaches, many of the new jobs require strong analytical skills and the ability to acquire new knowledge and apply it to novel situations. Persons who are accepted for advanced degrees presumably have demonstrated the potential to perform in these areas. When a student leaves, universities and society lose their considerable investment in that potential. This is true even though some leavers may find a productive niche without obtaining their degree.
Pressures for greater accountability in higher education are already occurring at the undergraduate level. Signs of this trend include the following:
- The publication of completion rates by the National College Athletic Association (for student athletes only) and U.S. News and World Report.
- A law passed by Congress which mandates the reporting of completion rates for undergraduate degrees.
These and other developments may foreshadow pressures that might extend to graduate education, thus further highlighting the need to prepare now for data collection.
 The Path to the Ph.D.: Measuring Graduate Student Attrition in the Sciences and Humanities, National Academy of Sciences, 1997 (Washington, D.C., National Academy Press).
 Higher Education Amendments of 1991: Students Assistance General Provision Act, Sections 668.41, 668.46, and 668.49, known as Student Right-to-Know Campus Security Act. The implementing regulations did not go into effect until the 1995-96 academic year.